Into Africa

BJacobs_20658D_020.jpgProfessor Bonnie Jacobs

Bonnie Jacobs, associate professor and chair of the Environmental Science program in Dedman College, pieces together the Earth’s past, one fossil plant at a time.

Over the summer she traveled to Africa, a continent she has been exploring since 1980, to continue fieldwork in Ethiopia. “We’re looking at the form and structure of fossil plants from two time slices – 28 million years and 22 million years – to better understand the global climate change that some records show happened between those times,” she explains.

In August, she became the first paleobotanist to join a Japanese research team in the Nakali region of Kenya’s Rift Valley, a site famous for the fossil ape, Nakalipithecus nakayamai. The Nakalipithecus may be the last common ancestor to gorillas, chimpanzees and humans.

Using fossil plants, Jacobs will paint a more complete picture of the Kenyan landscape – 10 million years ago. “I’m trying to determine what the apes’ environment was like,” she says. “Vertebrate fossils and plant fossils provide independent records; we’ll compare them to see if they send the same signals.”

Jacobs, a widely published researcher, recently co-authored “A Review of the Cenozoic Vegetation History of Africa,” a chapter in Cenozoic Mammals of Africa (University of California Press, 2010).

She is contributing to The New York TimesScientist at Work blog from Ethiopia over winter break.

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